The situation in Syria has brought forth powerful emotions at regular and distressing intervals in the last two years. British foreign policy has not. It is an impossible judgement call for which none of us have all the necessary information. The debate on British foreign policy towards Syria has been pretty abstract until today. Some commentators have advocated certain positions. Others have merely mourned the conflict. Today, as a country, we were presented with a direct choice.
Tonight, I fear for the future of our foreign policy. Curling up into the comforting blanket of isolationism will create a Britain of which I know I won’t be proud. This is the first visceral emotion I have had about the debate itself. It had been too close to call and too abstract. It’s still too close to call. I don’t know how I would have voted tonight. But our foreign policy has ceased to be an abstract debate and above all I feel shocked and disappointed.
As is often the case, it was my twitter feed that drove home that shock and disappointment – and prompted me to write. It seems to fall into the following categories:
- Calls for the PM to resign.
- Commentary regarding Miliband/Cameron or government/opposition relative positions and strength.
- Commentary on constitutional/historical/policy convention.
- Outrage that Britain is ‘doing nothing’ in the face of the use of chemical weapons.
- Approbation that ‘the will of the people’ has been expressed (often combined with a comment about Iraq).
Let’s take these one by one:
- This is not going to happen.
- This is so far below the level of events. It is embarrassing.
- Some of this is interesting. It is entirely academic but at least it matters.
- This is not true. Ed Miliband explicitly said he was not ruling out intervention in the future.
- This is not true. There would be a majority in the Commons if someone had a viable plan.
Today was an utter failure. It was a failure because it wasn’t clear what we would be trying to achieve with an intervention. It was a failure because it wasn’t clear how we were going to intervene. It was a failure because it wasn’t clear why parliament had been recalled or why Miliband was still opposing Cameron.
This is not about party politics (see point 2 above). No-one had a plan. 557 MPs voted. The debate lasted approximately 8 hours. That’s 4,456 hours of work and yet there was still no plan. The initial motion only called to support the idea of military intervention “in principle”. Cameron had talked up missile strikes before the debate but this was not in the motion. There was no limit on military power. No-one had a clue what the objective would be or what the exit strategy would be if we did get involved.
Equally, Labour didn’t seem to have a principled opposition. It was carefully calculated. It was a technicality. It was marginal. There was more principled opposition from the Tory backbenches than the Labour frontbench. The result is inertia.
The House of Commons spotted all of this. It rejected both leaders’ texts. It refused to pass a half-baked and potentially dangerous proposal. It did its job as a check on executive power. But I can’t be pleased with this. Just like I can’t be pleased that a Tory PM has lost a crucial vote, however surprising this may be to those who know me. There are bigger things at stake. Things I can’t even begin to fully comprehend.
I desperately want to see a viable plan. I don’t know what it looks like. But those who could, need to work across borders and party boundaries to come up with a plan that offers the people of Syria a viable, sustainable peace. For that to happen, it is going to require all sides to dial down the rhetoric and realise the line is blurred. These are impossible decisions. But they are moral decisions – the argument will not be won on a technicality.
There is a lot to say on the implications for domestic politics, for other foreign relations, for individual politicians but now is not the time. The reports from Syria tonight are only becoming more harrowing and tragic. Now is the time to come together and form a real plan. We need a morally defensible objective and a militarily feasible strategy. That is the only viable way to rally the political will that is so desperately needed by the people of Syria.
“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.” Spike Milligan
“The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do.” Thomas Jefferson
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